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After 32 years, Monday’s CMS opening belonged to Ann Clark

Superintendent Ann Clark hands out laptops to fifth-graders at Devonshire Elementary, where her CMS career started 32 years ago.
Superintendent Ann Clark hands out laptops to fifth-graders at Devonshire Elementary, where her CMS career started 32 years ago. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

The superintendent’s first-day tour is a tradition in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. But when you put Ann Clark’s resume next to Monday’s schedule, you see what made this year unique.

She started the morning at Devonshire Elementary, where she began her CMS career in 1983 as a teacher for students with behavioral and emotional disorders. She looked for her old classroom. It’s a storage room now.

Then it was on to Shamrock Gardens Elementary, where she got her first principal’s job in 1988. Then Alexander Graham Middle School (national principal of the year in 1994), Vance High (principal) and Montclair Elementary (assistant principal).

Clark’s roots go deep in CMS. That’s virtually unheard of for a superintendent here.

This system likes to search the nation for someone with an established reputation, a bold personality and a list of big ideas. Those leaders arrive with a bang and depart a few years later. The outside leaders tend to bring in their own crew, so even when CMS promoted Deputy Superintendent James Pughsley in 2002, the district got someone who had been here less than a decade.

Clark is as homegrown as it gets. For the last several years, as chief academic officer and deputy superintendent, she was a key player in setting the stage for the superintendents making high-profile opening day tours.

So there was poignancy to seeing her get her turn as the face of her district, the one trailed by cameras and microphones on a day that symbolizes high hopes and all that’s best about public education.

It was her first back-to-school tour as superintendent and her last.

Maybe.

Clark has said she plans to retire at the end of this school year. There’s buzz around Charlotte that the school board should talk her out of that.

Is the door open?

A recap for readers who are new to the area or have short memories: Clark was one of three finalists for the superintendent’s job in the last national search. In 2012 she lost out to Heath Morrison, who had just been named National Superintendent of the Year while working in Reno, Nev.

Morrison made Clark his deputy. She applied for the top job in Wake County Public Schools, again making it to the final three and again seeing the job go to someone else. She settled back into her work at CMS.

Last November, Morrison’s seemingly rosy relationship with the board exploded amid allegations that he had bullied staff and misled the board about district spending. He resigned abruptly, and Clark stepped in.

In January, the board named Clark superintendent through summer of 2016. Clark said she had already been planning her retirement and would stick around until the board completes its search for a longer-term leader.

Those could be the words of a woman who, at 57, is ready to move on.

But a reasonable observer might conclude that she gave the board some breathing room while ensuring a dignified end to her career, whether that comes in 2016 or later.

There’s no way Clark would be – or should be – part of another national search. It would be demeaning for her, distracting for the district and discouraging for outside candidates.

Clark is the ultimate known quantity. And I keep hearing from people, from community leaders to rank-and-file educators, who hope the board will offer her a longer contract.

During a break in Monday’s school tour, I asked Clark if she’d consider it. She said she plans to take a couple of weeks to focus on getting schools up and running before giving serious thought to her future plans.

Meanwhile, the board has made little visible progress in the search. They have yet to commit to a process, let alone launch one. If there’s action, it’s happening behind the scenes.

Try again or stay the course?

A superintendent must be many things, among them politician and salesman-in-chief.

Watching Clark deadpan her way through the back-to-school video on the CMS website, it’s easy to see why she wouldn’t be most people’s first choice to dazzle a room full of strangers.

But Clark doesn’t encounter many rooms full of strangers.

For more than three decades, she’s been active in the community as well as the school district. She has won the admiration of movers and shakers who wanted to see her chosen two years ago and want to see her stay longer now.

CMS is plunging into a review of student assignment, one of the most difficult tasks any district can undertake. Those who want to see Clark stay note that she won’t need a “listen and learn” tour to get a handle on what has worked and what has failed, which promises have been kept and which betrayed, who feels like a winner and who feels shut out. All of that will be part of the road map for decisions made over the next couple of years.

But three decades of involvement in that history means some see Clark as part of the problem, rather than the solution.

One board member told me he’d like nothing better than to see his colleagues unite to offer Clark a longer contract. But that feeling isn’t unanimous, he said, and a split board isn’t likely to make such a move.

When I asked board Chairperson Mary McCray, she said the district is honoring Clark’s wish to retire next year.

If and when the board launches a formal search, we’ll know that’s what will happen.

Until then, I’d bank on one thing Clark told me Monday: Whatever comes next, she’ll give her all until she walks out the door for good.

You can question Clark’s sizzle, but even her detractors don’t doubt her sincerity. Whenever the end comes, CMS is Clark’s legacy.

History of superintendents

Here are the superintendents who have served during the 32 years Ann Clark has worked for CMS.

Heath Morrison: Hired from Reno, Nev., in 2012; resigned under pressure less than three years later.

Hugh Hattabaugh: Interim 2011-2012.

Peter Gorman: Hired from Tustin, Calif., in 2006. Stayed five years.

Frances Haithcock: Interim 2005-2006.

James Pughsley: Promoted from deputy superintendent in 2002, after six years with CMS. Stayed three years.

Eric Smith: Hired from Newport News, Va., in 1996. Stayed six years.

Dennis Williams and Hilton L’Orange: Interims 1995-1996.

John Murphy: Hired from Prince George’s County, Md., in 1991. Stayed four years.

Calvin Wallace: Interim 1990-1991.

Peter Relic: Hired from West Hartford, Conn., in 1987. Stayed three years.

Robert Hanes: Interim 1986-87.

Jay Robinson: Hired from Cabarrus County in 1977. Stayed nine years.

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